The Challenges with Saving Religious-Owned, Historic Places

(Photo: An aerial shot shows demolition of the Chancery in Rockford in June. Courtesy: Don Bissell)


August 27, 2019

By Lisa DiChiera, Director of Advocacy

(This article originally appeared in the August 2019 edition of The Arch newsletter)

On May 31, 2019, a Winnebago County judge ruled that community advocates lacked standing in their legal challenge of the City of Rockford’s decision to deny landmark designation for the former Chancery, a 90-year-old, French Renaissance/Beaux Arts-inspired building that had previously served as the Diocese of Rockford headquarters. Within 24 hours of that ruling, the Rockford Diocese mobilized its demolition crew. The historic Chancery, which had been an architectural beacon in the Signal Hill neighborhood since 1929, was fully demolished within days. Sadly, this is not the first time Landmarks Illinois has seen a religious-owned, historic structure meet this fate.

Despite sound case law that gives municipalities the right to make land-use decisions, including landmarking of religious-owned architecturally and historically significant buildings, many elected officials continue to treat religious owners differently than other property owners for fear of legal action. Like zoning, local landmarking is appropriate when a building meets the required criteria of a local preservation ordinance. This was the case for the Chancery, as well as two additional Diocesan-owned buildings on the same block: the St. Peter School and a former convent. Community advocates nominated the historic buildings, which were included on LI’s 2019 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois, for local landmark protection after the Rockford Diocese stated its intention to demolish them in favor of parking lots and gardens.

(Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery in Peoria is housed in the former Second Presbyterian Church.)

Working to revitalize Rockford’s Signal Hill neighborhood, advocates emphasized the opportunity for the buildings to be sold or leased by the Diocese to a developer for rehabilitation and reuse. Several developers expressed interest in doing so. The buildings were ideal candidates for housing conversion similar to the nearby historic Garrison School, transformed into market-rate lofts. In the end, the 7-6 Rockford City Council vote in favor of landmarking failed due to the city’s required super-majority when an owner does not consent to the landmark designation.

In July 2004, LI published a newsletter article, “Let us Pray…for Old Churches,” highlighting the challenges of landmarking religious-owned properties particularly in Chicago. Past LI President David Bahlman wrote, “…[R]eligious entities need to begin marketing their buildings for reuse well in advance of their closure. These historic structures are simply too beautiful – and useful – to continue to throw away.”

(Passionist Fathers Monastery was converted to Senior Suites in Norwood Park. (Credit: MacRostie Historic Advisors.)

In Chicago, LI has been part of the effort to save Chicago Archdiocesan-owned churches such as St. Leo the Great, St. Boniface and St. Gelasius (now Shrine of Christ the King). Interestingly, since these advocacy battles, the Chicago Archdiocese recently announced it would market the historic St. Adalbert in Pilsen for sale, rather than stick to its original plan for demolition. With the Chicago Archdiocese’s stated plans to close numerous churches and schools in coming years, this is a hopeful indication that selling may be prioritized over demolition, giving these neighborhood anchors a chance to continue as community assets. Reused religious buildings may be brought onto the tax rolls if not acquired by another congregation, and a sale brings income to the Archdiocese, providing a win for everybody.

Converting large church buildings to housing can prove challenging due to their voluminous worship spaces, but convents, schools and chanceries/monasteries are ideal for housing. A successful recent example is the rehabilitation and senior housing reuse of the former Passionist Fathers Monastery in Chicago’s Norwood Park neighborhood.

(Church of the Epiphany in Chicago is undergoing conversion into an arts center.)

Recent large-scale church reuses in Illinois include the conversion of Peoria’s former Second Presbyterian Church (W.W. Boyington, 1889) to an Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery and the conversion of Chicago’s former Church of Epiphany (Burling and Whitehouse, 1885) to the Epiphany Center for the Arts by developer Emerging Interests LLC.

The sale of historic religious buildings to private sector buyers allows historic tax credits to be used as a critical financing tool for rehabilitation. In turn, new income-producing uses create income and/or property tax revenue. Sale and reuse of former religious buildings makes economic and planning sense for neighborhoods.

As stated at LI’s 2019 Most Endangered Historic Places press conference by Rockford resident Don Bissell, “Borrowing words from Joni Mitchell, why ‘pave paradise and put up a parking lot’?”

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